Britain Can’t Afford To Fly Blind On Immigration


Current Affairs, History, Migration Trends, Office for National Statistics, Policy

In May this year, the Home Secretary gave a speech on immigration. As well as admonishing a journalist for using ‘language of old’ for asking whether the government would reduce or increase immigration, she made the following promise as part of her immigration plans: “We will be able to count in and count out who is in our country for the first time ever” (see Ms Patel’s full answer here).

Sadly, the public now seems further from ever from being given a clear and accurate picture of the true level of immigration to this country (and this as 76% of the public say the government is handling immigration badly – the worst score of Boris Johnson’s Premiership – YouGov Tracking Poll, mid-August 2021).

Until recently, the International Passenger Survey (IPS) was the main method by which immigration to and from the UK was measured. The IPS collects information about passengers entering and leaving the UK, and has been running continuously since 1961. The IPS has measured long-term immigration according to the intentions of people arriving and departing. It is based upon information received in the course of 700,000 and 800,000 interviews at UK ports per year, of which over 250,000 are used to produce estimates of overseas travel and tourism. In order to come to an overall net migration estimates, the IPS total was then adjusted to account for asylum seeker arrivals and migrant/visitor switchers.

The IPS was far from perfect. However, despite these, in March 2018, it was described by the ONS as ‘the best source of information to measure long-term international migration’ (see Parliamentary Answer here).

Yet the IPS was completely suspended in March 2020 during the onset of Covid (as were a number of other surveys). Since then, it has been partially restarted – and the results used by experts behind closed doors to make estimates of immigration via experimental statistical modelling. This year they used administrative data to come to an estimate of net migration in the year to June 2020 of 247,000 (40,000 higher than the year before Boris Johnson took over a PM). We may not receive another such estimate until next Spring although new visa and a host of other statistics are due out later this month on 26 August.

Although the IPS has partially resumed, summary IPS results are still not being made available for public scrutiny as they were for every quarter for years. Statistical accountability and transparency has suffered a huge and mostly unreported setback as the press has focused on Covid, Brexit and climate change.

In the midst of a growing and largely unnoticed upheaval over measuring immigration, the UK has been flying blind on the question of how many people are coming here during one of the greatest crises in global history.

Meanwhile, the transparency of the ONS and government have been called into serious doubt over this hugely important question.

What is worse is that this statistical ‘fog of war’ has been inadvertently created, and perhaps worsened, by a cascade of highly-questionable decisions, at a time when: a) we are in the midst of a global pandemic – when it is particularly important to know who is, and how many people are, coming to the UK and b) when the UK’s departure from the EU means we are in the process of both bedding-in or passing major reforms (on both the visa and asylum regimes) which (more than ever) require timely information so that Parliamentarians and the public can have a clear understanding of their effectiveness.

Worryingly the wisdom of ONS changes ostensibly aimed providing a better picture of immigration are now in serious doubt. The project to revamp the statistics was driven, in part, by a reliability problem caused by the fact that the IPS has been based on intentions – in particular whether, upon arrival, people plan to stay for 12 months or more. The increasing divergence between IPS-estimated flows and change in Labour Force Survey-estimated actual stocks appeared to be the result of people staying on despite their original intention to be in the UK only temporarily e.g. someone coming to a short-term or seasonal job who then got a permanent one.

However, the ‘experimental’ methods which the ONS has touted as replacing the IPS are full of coverage gaps and look highly unlikely to be able to provide accurate or timely information on immigration levels. Here are just some of the problems:

a) The new system uses information from the Department for Work and Pensions RAPID (which stands for Registration and Population Interaction Database). This tracks individuals issued with a National Insurance numbers (NINos) as adult non-UK nationals and if they appear in DWP or HMRC records  their ongoing stay in the UK is inferred from their continued presence in the data. The problem with this is that one cannot tell whether someone has been here for 12 months or more until they have actually been here for that time. So RAPID is unlikely to deliver timely information about the number of Long Term International Migrants arriving in the UK.

b) Huge coverage gaps in RAPID means there are serious concerns over the accuracy of estimates derived from it:

  • Migrant children aged under 16 years are not covered in RAPID
  • Visiting students who do not apply for a NINo will not be included in RAPID
  • Some students who do hold a NINo may not be identified as a long-term migrant if they do not undertake an activity that verifies long-term presence.
  • There’s also an inability to identify migrants who go on to become UK citizens, while continuing to classify them as non-UK nationals. This means that estimates of non-UK outflow will include some people who have since become UK nationals.

c) We know that the Home Office’s Exit Checks data (also touted as another key source of data for the new system) has huge coverage gaps (which appear far from having been remedied, despite the flaws being pointed out in 2018 by the ICIBI). These gaps include non-visa nationals who account for the largest cohort of visitors to the UK by far).

The ONS is attempting to get around these many problems by using statistical modelling to fill in the glaring gaps in the data, and a ‘Delphi process’ which involves no more than a small group of selected ‘experts’ being asked whether they think the results could be correct.

Another part of the solution appears to be to look at the proportion of various groups who have stayed on in previous years and then make adjustments to new numbers on this basis. However, this assumes that new arrivals will follow ‘migrant journeys’ similar to previous cohorts. If there are substantial changes, for example in the economic cycle or the immigration system, the effect on migration will not be picked up until the following year or even the year after. Statistics created using such methods will neither be accurate nor timely.

Perhaps reflective of the obvious uncertainty, and the accountability and transparency issues which suffuse this approach, the ONS says that its attempts to measure immigration via administrative data are ‘experimental’ and should not be treated as official statistics. It admits that their attempt to adjust ‘does not fully address this coverage gap’ and some students are still missing from the estimates’.

Worryingly, this implies that RAPID alone cannot ever be a reliable indicator, particularly of non-EU immigration levels. In addition, ONS adjustments will necessarily be based upon subjective judgements (derived from Exit checks and other data, e.g. Higher Education statistics) rather than a look at the numbers as they were recorded by a single source – the IPS. It is material that the bulk of the previous Migration Statistics Quarterly Report (MSQR) was based on this single (albeit imperfect) source – the IPS; a huge data source that was used to good effect for decades but has now largely been jettisoned from the public process of devising and revealing quarterly migration estimates.

There are also obvious transparency problems with ONS’s reversion to a Delphi approach involving hand-selected academics who get together to agree on a net migration figure based on various sources; in contrast to this the previous IPS-based publication method was much more transparent and comprehensible.

So we are in a situation where the main tried-and-tested method of measuring immigration has been partially suspended and nothing reliable has been put in its place to ensure responsible continuity. Instead of clarity and transparency about numbers, we are getting more and more obfuscation. The public can be forgiven for thinking we are flying blind or, worse, that they are being completely hoodwinked about immigration.

Anyone who has observed the ONS’s performance over past decades will not be surprised by these problems. Following the 2011 Census, new adjusted figures showed that net migration to England and Wales was around 500,000 higher than previously estimated during the 2000s. A separate adjustment earlier this year indicated that net immigration was 43,000 higher each year since 2012 than previously calculated — 15 per cent more than earlier estimates.

A ‘confuseopoly’ is a situation where information is made so abstruse and impossible for the public to verify or understand and compare that huge extra agenda-setting power ends up being handed (either inadvertently or deliberately) to a select few ‘experts’ who of course had a hand in helping create the baffling situation in the first place.

It is crucial to ensure that those whose role it is to hold the government to account (including Parliamentarians and the public) are not being tricked via the means of a confusepoly on immigration. Clear, simple, comprehensible and accurate statistics are vital for measuring and understanding immigration levels and population growth. For one thing, such metrics are vital for understanding housing and public service needs at local level.

This is not the only worrying situation when it comes to the government’s handling of data as it relates to immigration. The Home Office has come in for major criticism by the National Audit Office (NAO) and Home Affairs Select Committee for failing to competently update data systems in time for Brexit (and in line with previous timetables – leading to a huge waste of taxpayer money).

Indeed, the NAO said that a planned new e-border system to catch suspected terrorists and dangerous criminals was so ineffective it failed to check 80% of passengers. Mistakes by the HO have meant tens of millions being wasted. This is not good enough.

We recommend that MPs lobby ministers on the need to keep the IPS as the main measure as the principal basis of forthcoming MSQRs. The ONS must also be continuing to publish the IPS summary tables as they have been every quarter for years. Doing so will ensure an essential accuracy and transparency check for any new updated methodology as it is rolled out carefully and gradually.

Flying blind on immigration – especially at this crucial time – is not an option.

16th August 2021

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